A Chemistry Conversation with Tod Bolsinger
How are churches really doing this far into the pandemic? Dr. Tod Bolsinger shares that "one of the most important things that actually brings resilience is that there's a sense of purpose." He states that the people who are doing best during this season are the ones who choose not to waste the lessons that we can learn through the crisis.
Watch the video for more incredible truths as Tod Bolsinger and Matt Steen discuss leading change in this rapidly-changing world.
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- New Book: Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Stress (use code TR30 to get 30% off all of Tod's books)
Read the Full Transcript
Matt Steen: Well hey, this is Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing, and I'm so excited today to have Dr. Tod Bolsinger joining me. Tod is the Senior Congregational Strategist and Associate Professor of Leadership Formation at Fuller Seminary. He's written probably, and I think this is an exact number, about a million books. You probably heard of Canoeing the Mountains, but also most recently, I guess it's coming out November 10th, is Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Stress. And before I let him say "hey" I will say this, I was captivated pretty early in the book. The idea, the imagery that you use about a blacksmith and how steel is strengthened through stress. And I'm guessing, this is probably just my experience, but with all the stress that I've experienced since March, I'm guessing I should be pretty strong by now, right?
Tod Bolsinger: You'd think. Actually, it's interesting because one of the parts that's really important about that is that change is a type of stress, but too much stress without being formed for the change and being as we say "tempered," like tempered steel, ultimately you become brittle. And we've got some people who are getting brittle, not stronger.
Matt Steen: Yeah, so many of the conversations I've had, and I know you work with tons of churches across the country, I'm sure you're seeing some of this too. But so many people, we're six, seven, eight months into this and they're just starting to wear out, and are getting brittle I guess. I mean, as you talk with the pastors that you're working with, how are you walking with them through this season?
Tod Bolsinger: Well one of the most important things that actually brings resilience is that there's a sense of purpose. Purpose helps bring resilience. So one of the most important things is that the churches that are doing best and the leaders that are doing best are people who have a clear sense of "we are not going to waste this crisis." If we're going to have to go through a pandemic, if we're going to go through everything we're going through, we are not coming out the other side having wasted a year of time. So that sense of purpose actually creates energy and focus and over time gives energy back to people and enables them to begin to move forward. And it's not just about being all fired up. It's actually being really clear about why we're in this.
Matt Steen: That's awesome. Now, so many times it feels that "don't waste a good crisis" is such a cynical thing, so people are really quick almost to say, "I don't want to be that guy." It's so important right now to do that, so how do you do that without being caught up in that cynicism?
Tod Bolsinger: Well, so one of the ways to do it is to, actually this is a great conversation any pastor, any leader can have with their team. Which is to say, what are the kind of things that we see today that we actually have been seeing for a long time? I mean, really. We're not being cynical. We're not being opportunistic. What we're saying is, hey, we've got a moment to work on some stuff. I got to tell you, I used to fly a hundred thousand miles a year. I get grounded because of COVID, my wife is like, "you know, there's a bunch of stuff around here we haven't been doing at the house." You know, all of the sudden I have a choice. I can sit in my house and complain that I'm doing some good, or I can get outside and do some good. And all of the sudden, that getting outside and doing some good actually gives you some energy and life and vitality. The key isn't to be cynical. The key is to be really actually hopeful and purposeful.
Matt Steen: That's great. And so we walk through this season with that sense of hope, with that sense of purpose. But at the same time, we also have congregations that are terrified, that are divided, that are at each other's throats. How have you kind of counseled your pastors to bring them together?
Tod Bolsinger: Well, one of the things is, this is a good moment to get really clear on what is actually essential. That's a hard conversation to have very often, right? But when you have to choose, okay, so what are we really about, what really matters, what's the thing that we can't lose. That's a life giving - that's a hard conversations, but that's a life-giving one. And it's also that clarity actually then that becomes actionable. Like, every youth pastor I know goes, "I was hired to run a youth group. What happens when you can't have a group?" You go, you know what? You get to go back to actually something else. What does it mean to pastor youth? What does it mean to disciple youth? What does it mean to invest yourself in the next generation? So you don't get to do it with a group... okay. You still have the Holy Spirit. You have the scriptures. You have the community. You know, right? So let's get creative, right?
Matt Steen: That's awesome. So are there churches that you're working with, I mean, you get back to the sense of clarity, get back to the sense of core purpose, you start to look and go back to your essentials. What do you see churches that are scrapping that, I don't know, eight months ago were convinced was essential? What are some of the things that would surprise people that are listening to this conversation like that?
Tod Bolsinger: Well okay, so I would tell you this. One of the churches that I'm working with, it happens to be a church in Texas. One of the churches I'm working with just was in the middle of plans for a massive building campaign. They needed it. They were bursting at the seams. They were growing like crazy. The pastor who I coach and I had had a lot of conversations about the fact that he was actually ambivalent. He kept saying, "I'm not sure that big debt and big conversations and big facilities is really the future when you're talking about being more missional and have more cell groups and more church planting. But, you know, everybody wants to build a church, and we're crammed." Well, all of the sudden, they're not crammed. And in the middle of the capital campaign, they decided to say, "We are not going to do a church building. No matter what happens with COVID, we're going to use this experience to become a more distributed model church, a church that is more invested in developing community across our church than just gathering people to our church." So they made a massive decision where they set aside their capital campaign and they set aside their building project. And I look at them and think, that probably is going to be, for lots of reasons, really transformative for that congregation.
Matt Steen: And I see that almost as being the way of the future, but I want to go back to the "distributed" comment that you made because I want to unpack that a little bit because that's not necessarily one that we use a whole awful lot in the church world. Now when you say "distributed," are you talking multisite, or are you talking... help us understand what that means.
Tod Bolsinger: So one of my friends who's a colleague, he's been hired by some megachurches in the United States to actually do a survey of the largest churches in the world. Almost all of them are in the majority world. Some are in the United States, but most of them are in the majority world, and almost none of them can ever gather for a worship service. You have 100,000 members, you can't get them into any place except for maybe Barcelona stadium, right? It's not going to happen. So they stopped thinking about their church as the Sunday services, and they started thinking more and more of their church as networks of home churches, of people in groups, of people in lots of different-sized groups, people in lots of different-sized models. The idea of a distributed church is that we are held together by our practices, by our convictions, and by our connections to each other. Not by our geography or our location or our buildings. And when you start making those kind of changes, you start realizing people have to really begin to think much more creatively about what they're doing.
Matt Steen: And so there's a lot of people who are a little nervous when you hear that.
Tod Bolsinger: Oh yeah.
Matt Steen: So much of the pastoral and, you know, what we've been taught, whether it's seminary or tradition or what, is Sunday morning, that's the Super Bowl each week.
Tod Bolsinger: Yeah, yeah.
Matt Steen: And so rethinking what that looks like, I mean in light of COVID that makes a ton of sense, but at the same time there's a lot of tradition that we've got to turn around. How do we start those conversations without getting fired?
Tod Bolsinger: Well, here’s one of the ways. I think that you can read a really good book, the New Testament.
Matt Steen: Uh oh.
Tod Bolsinger: I mean, what's really interesting is, there isn't any place in the New Testament where people show up for anything like our Sunday morning services. So now we actually have some biblical models we can go back and look at and ask questions about and begin to think about, including the role of the pastor. What is the role of the elders and the teachers? What does it mean to be apostolic? What does it mean to be pastoral? All of the sudden, we get to asking lots of different questions. And what we should do is go right back to the scriptures with them. And that gives us, if nothing else, the conversation to have very live discussions. I'm not talking about throwing stuff out to throw stuff out; I'm talking about actually returning to our roots and asking some questions about what the church could be that maybe we haven't because we haven't had to.
Matt Steen: Those are dangerous questions. I can feel people sweating right now as you're throwing that out, but I think there's so much wisdom in that and kind of rethinking what can church look like. How should we do church in the days to come? Let's ask a totally unfair question, and you're welcome for that, but the model that church had been in pre-COVID, is that on the decline already before the pandemic set in?
Tod Bolsinger: Well yeah, that's not even a controversy. It has been in decline. Actually all of the markers have been that Christendom models of church have been in decline. That's just been happening. Even churches, whether it's megachurches, the net number of Christians in the area have not gone up. It's been about gathering. So what becomes interesting at this moment, and this is I think to me the most controversial thing isn't that. The most controversial thing I would say is I don't even think you should try to predict the future. I think the goal isn't to try to predict the future. The goal is - this is one of the things that I did learn from some of my friends in Silicon Valley - you don't predict, you prototype. You do small experiments. You come back to the scriptures and go back to our core convictions and say, “Let's try an experiment in this. Let's just try this and see what it does. What can we learn?” Experiments aren’t about, “Did it work?” Experiments are, “What are we learning?” Are we learning other models of how we can disciple people that might be better than trying to gather them in big buildings?
Matt Steen: That's awesome. What are some of the experiments that you're seeing working? Anything that comes to mind?
Tod Bolsinger: Well one of the things that comes to mind is actually using technology for discipleship. So the number of pastors I know who are saying stuff like, "Look, I can get a bunch of people out on Wednesday night for my Bible study, but now I can load scripture studies that people can access every single day. I get to teach the scriptures more using online." When the time comes for us to be able to be together and when we can be together safely, we're going to want to get together and hug each other and eat meals and tell stories and cry and laugh. We're probably not going to want to get together for long business meetings. Now that we know that we can do meetings on Zoom, there's a lot of stuff. So the future's going to be hybrid. It's going to be high-tech and high-touch. And I look forward to those days when we can be doing both, but we can take advantage of technology to get rid of lots of parts of the church that we used to just do out of legacy tradition.
Matt Steen: High-tech and high-touch, I like that imagery. I like the idea of all the garbage that, important yeah, but it gets in the way of the relationship and all that kind of stuff. I love that idea. Well, Tod, I know I've only got you for a few minutes and I don't want to keep you over, but as we wrap up, as you're talking to pastors, what encouragement, what wisdom, what charge would you give to the guys that are listening to this right now as they go about their day-to-day?
Tod Bolsinger: So I wrote the book I wrote on resilience because it's hard. Leadership is hard. And leading change is hard. And leading change in a rapidly-changing world is really hard. So my encouragement would be to say, you need to give yourself to your own formation as much as you need to give yourself to your people. You need to keep being developed. You need to keep growing in your confidence in Christ. You need to keep being surrounded by relationships who will hold you when it's difficult. You need to have the spiritual practices that will keep shaping you. You're your only tool, and your tool needs to be as strong and as tempered as it can possibly be to continue the work of transformation that God's given you.
Matt Steen: That's awesome. Tod, thank you so much.
Tod Bolsinger: You're welcome.
Matt Steen: So Tod's new book Tempered Resilience launches November 10th, and we'll link off to it down below. Everybody go buy seven or eight copies, give it to everybody that you know. And thanks again for doing this.
Tod Bolsinger: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.